Born and raised in Mexico City, Hualani’s Executive Chef Jaret Tellez is no stranger to the concept of food as an expression of love. To this day, his mother and grandmother still influence and inspire his cooking. He earned a culinary degree and went on to work in kitchens all over the world, from the Florida Keys to Abu Dhabi. That’s where he met Chef Luis Pous and then followed him to Kauai where the duo collaborate on organic, locally-sourced creations inspired by the Farm at Hokuala.

It just so happens Valentine’s Day fell on a Thursday this year, the same day as Timbers Kauai’s weekly farm-to-table dinner. We caught up with Chef Jafet to talk about the inspiration behind this special menu and how food can be the perfect expression of love.

What are the biggest influences in your cooking?
When I lived in the Middle East for three years, I met a lot of great people from Asia and had the opportunity to travel to Japan and Thailand, so I have this Asian influence in me because of my travels. I always say my three biggest influences are my mother, my Grandmother, and Chef Luis.

How would you describe your style of cooking?
I don’t have any one specialty. Our farm is unbelievable, so we always start with all this amazing fresh produce we have. We are on an island, so we can also get super fresh fish anytime, like ahi, opa, and swordfish. Our food is inspired by the lifestyle on Kauai— everything we do is as natural as possible and very healthy. This island is so pristine, and our food reflects that.

What inspires you when you are creating new dishes?
We like to come up with new ways to do things, to transform super classic dishes into something that is Hawaiian but maybe also Latin, Hawaiian or Asian. We like to play.

What is the key to healthy cooking?
We use locally-sourced, organic, non-GMO ingredients as much as possible but in order to achieve healthy dishes we are doing a lot of roasting, steaming and grilling. It’s not just about the ingredients, but also the techniques we use.

Is there a connection between food and emotion?
Yes, of course, one hundred percent. Food is a way to take care of the people you love. It’s a way to express yourself and what you’re feeling in that moment.

Tell us about the Valentine’s Day menu at Hualani’s.
We have our farm-to-table dinner on Thursdays and Valentine’s Day just happens to fall on that day, so we are using all local ingredients for our creations. This menu is a good example of everything we’ve talked about. There is a vegetarian taco appetizer that reflects my Mexican influence but instead of using a corn or flour tortilla it’s a jicama taco with vegetables from our farm. We also did a poke appetizer, which is very Hawaiian, but with avocado mousse made from local avocados. For a main course, we’re doing a catch of the day, but we won’t know what it is until that day because we want it to be the best fresh fish available on that day. We’re serving it with beet mash from the farm because we like to incorporate as many forms, textures and flavors as we can. We also decided to experiment with roasting banana and it’s so good, we’re doing it as one of the desserts, with dulce de leche, macadamia nut and edible flowers from the garden. We’re also doing a flan—so there’s our Latin influence again—flavored with espresso from locally produced coffee beans.

It doesn’t get much more Hawaiian than banana and macadamia nut. But roasted?
On Kauai, there is banana anywhere your turn your face, literally. We were experimenting with them and thought, what will happen if we roast them? You get this really smoky, sweet banana flavor. It’s really good. We like to have fun and hope those are some of the emotions that come through in our food.